Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels’ proverbial chickens are coming home to roost … and they are foul. The roosting didn’t start when the new sheriff turned the Clay County Sheriff’s Office into a place where civilians and officers flew the coop in surprising numbers. It didn’t start last year, when the sheriff’s wife discovered his affair with young Cierra Smith—or when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found cause to investigate the sheriff for having his pregnant lover arrested for stalking. It started in 2014, when Daniels hatched a plan to be the sheriff of Clay County. During the campaign, the candidate began to establish a modus operandi. He waved his degree in religion to attract good and decent people; he used their knowledge, their ideas and their talents; then he tossed them away like feathers in the wind, expecting them to disappear. His expectations were wrong.
Jim Messer is a large, intimidating guy. Now 51, he has spent his entire 32-year career in corrections, which gives him an air of menacing authority. Carl Crosley, a former supervisor, said, “No inmates ever wanted to mess with Big Jim.” But the big man has a secret. Unlike his public façade, the officer is a gentle giant. He is fair, humble and compassionate, with a strong faith and sympathetic tears he can’t brush away.
At age 19, Messer went to work as a prison guard at Florida State Prison in Raiford. When Sheriff Dalton Bray was elected sheriff of Clay County in 1989, he hired Big Jim as a corrections officer in the county jail, and Messer worked his way up to the rank of sergeant. In 1992, when Scott Lancaster was elected sheriff, he recognized Messer’s potential; Big Jim made lieutenant in 1998. He was part of a group of individuals who obtained the first accreditation for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. Messer also taught firearms and a range of other courses to new recruits at the police academy in St. Augustine. Messer was promoted to captain and charged with security for the jail and the courthouse. When Rick Beseler came in as Clay County sheriff in January 2005, Captain Messer was demoted back to lieutenant (with no change in pay) and assigned to assist Major Carl Crosley, whom the sheriff brought in to manage the jail. Although Crosley had no experience in the jail, Messer didn’t hold a grudge.
“At the end of the day, we had a much bigger goal than ourselves,” Messer told Folio Weekly. “We had to make sure the facility was safe, that the staff and the inmates were safe, and that everything was done right and professional.” Crosley still speaks glowingly of Messer, who worked for Beseler for four years. When a new jail was opened in Baker County in 2009, Sheriff Joey Dopson hired Messer and immediately promoted him to the rank of sergeant.
Messer was not only trusted and admired in the CCSO, but also in his small Keystone community and throughout southern Clay County. A close friend who was supporting Darryl Daniels, the first African American to ever run for sheriff in Clay County, sought Big Jim’s endorsement for his candidacy in October 2015. Messer insisted on meeting Daniels before giving his support.
In December 2015, he did finally meet the candidate. Messer said the Clay County Sheriff’s Office had a stellar reputation in the state of Florida, but he was worried that since Beseler was not seeking reelection, many of his friends would either lose their jobs or be demoted. He expressed these concerns to the candidate. Daniels assured him that he did not plan to demote anyone; Daniels claimed that he even planned to hire an officer on the CCSO SWAT team as his undersheriff. This eased Big Jim’s apprehension. However, the candidate’s contention that he was a godly man—and had a master’s degree in religion—was the deciding factor for Messer’s support.
As was his usual way, Messer poured his heart and soul into his support for Daniels. He and his wife went to events and promoted Daniels to friends and neighbors on social media. Messer wrote a letter of endorsement, which was published in the Bradford County Telegraph, Clay Today and the Lake Region Monitor. After long hours of work at the Baker County Jail, he spent a lot of time walking neighborhoods in the evenings and in the sweltering heat of long summer days for his candidate. Although on a tight budget (and with children to support), Messer and his wife donated to Daniels’ campaign. The officer waved signs endlessly; in corrections circles, he became a relentless voice for Darryl Daniels.
One afternoon, Big Jim and Daniels’ campaign manager, Gary Cross, were walking a Middleburg neighborhood. Cross commented on Messer’s long and multifaceted corrections experience and said he would be a great asset to the CCSO if Daniels was elected. Big Jim told Cross that he was happy at Baker County and would not be interested in moving. Daniels was undeterred; he began to call Messer at home and stayed on the phone with him for long periods of time, inquiring about the intricacies of corrections and talking about general campaign issues. Finally, right before the election, Daniels made a request.
“Jim,” Daniels allegedly said, “I’m going to need some help in that jail.” Messer reiterated that he was happy and committed to Baker County.
On election night, the Messers gathered with Daniels and his supporters at the Oakleaf Plantation Events Club. Emotions ran high as the election ran very close. The four-man race for sheriff was the most expensive political race in Clay County history. Cross led a massive fund-raising drive that yielded the largest amount collected in the race. When all precincts were in, Daniels had barely squeaked a victory. On their way out of the event, Messer and his wife waited in line to congratulate the new sheriff-elect. As Big Jim reached out to shake Daniels’ hand, the latter pulled him close and looked him in the eye.
“Jim,” he insisted, “I’m going to need some help in that jail.”
This time, however, Messer agreed: “If that’s what you need, sheriff, then you shall have it.”
Two days later, Daniels called and told Messer, “Go ahead and get your resume polished up.” An appointment was made for his interview. The sheriff was not in attendance, and it was quick, Messer remembered. When he heard nothing for several weeks, he started to get anxious. A new sheriff, Scotty Rhoden, had been elected in Baker County, and the officer did not know what was going to happen. He didn’t think he was going to get fired, he said, but he noted that the transition after an election was always stressful.
Finally, Messer decided to go to the source. He called Daniels several times, but the sheriff-elect did not answer his calls, nor did he answer texts. Messer waited weeks, then he called and texted again. Still no response. Big Jim Messer began to feel shame over the constant calls, texts and inquiries that went unanswered, so after several months, he gave up. He had a job for which he was grateful, and he would continue to work hard at it.
On December 28, 2016, Messer was working at Baker County Jail when he got a call from one of Rhoden’s people. They met for a long conversation about the jail. Afterwards, Rhoden, still sheriff-elect of Baker County, called to arrange an impromptu interview. This interview was extensive. Sheriff Rhoden offered Messer a job he had only dared dream about: chief of security. Big Jim would run the Baker County Jail.
Officer Messer continues to count his blessing each day. One of those blessing is that he was never hired by Sheriff Darryl Daniels. Officers from CCSO phoned him regularly with troubling stories about the CCSO. They told him the sheriff “reorganized” the force. Despite his promises, Daniels brought in both working officers and retired officers from JSO and placed them in positions previously held by local officers. Although Daniels had already announced that a CCSO veteran would be undersheriff, he soon changed his mind and appointed former JSO Officer Ray Walden instead. Stories abounded regarding Daniels’ free-spending habits. While he cut officers’ pay, he immediately bought himself a fancy new truck and a fleet of new Dodge Chargers. Eventually, too, the sheriff’s sexual habits came to light when he had his mistress arrested.
Daniels had hired Cross to be part of his command staff. While Cross had nothing negative to say about the sheriff at the time, he did call Messer to check on him several times: “I told Gary that I had things to say to Darryl. And if I ever got the opportunity to tell him those things, I would.”
That opportunity presented itself in June 2019. It had been almost three years since Messer had seen Daniels. As Baker County’s chief of security, Messer was sent to the Florida Sheriffs Association’s Commanders Academy in Tallahassee. Daniels was fresh from his tar-and-feathering by Northeast Florida’s media in the wake of his girlfriend’s tell-all interviews. The state conference was set long before Daniels’ cheating flap, and the Clay County sheriff had been assigned a place on the Commander’s Academy panel to offer advice on policing. Those on the panel had the opportunity to introduce themselves. “I’m Darryl Daniels, the sheriff of Clay County.” Daniels began, looking at Messer. “Before I start, I need to acknowledge someone in this room that was very influential in getting me elected. That person is Jim Messer. Jim, if I have done anything that would make you second-guess your decision or to no longer support me, I’m sorry.”
Big Jim had a big lump in his throat. “He seemed to be offering a public apology in front of that group of people. I got very emotional. And it felt good at the time,” he said.
Daniels left the conference early, but several people commented on the sincerity of the sheriff’s words, assuming the public apology was for Daniels’ behavior with Smith. Messer knew it was for the shabby way Daniels had treated him. He thought about it on the long drive home.
“I had been hurt and angry. Darryl had used me for his own purposes, and he wasn’t even man enough to answer my calls,” Messer sighed. “I have been a very blessed person my whole life, and I was tired of carrying around the weight of that resentment. I wanted make things right with him.”
So Messer called Daniels to thank him for his contrition and offer forgiveness. But Daniels didn’t answer. He verified Daniels phone number, then tried again. Nothing. Then Messer texted the sheriff. To date, Messer has never received a return call from Daniels.
“I knew, then, it was par for the course,” Messer said. “He did something in public that made him look good, served his purpose. That was his goal. Today, I feel sad for him. His name is forever going to be stained by that arrest of Cierra Smith. He had an opportunity to do really good things, and I think he threw that away. He could have left a legacy beyond being a good sheriff … being a man of his word, a man of integrity. All he ever thought about was himself. The people of Clay County deserve better, and I believe he will answer for that … at the polls.”
Jim Messer may be right. Although his public information officers are using county resources to attempt to keep the sheriff in the public eye during a crucial election year, Daniels’ appearances have yielded little support within the community. His campaign war chest is small. He has received open criticism for flouting virus safety and ordering SWAT officers to conduct drug busts that resulted in little or no confiscation and few arrests. Folio Weekly has received public records showing the CCSO has been late paying critical operational department invoices, yet he has ordered fast and furious-type vehicles for his department. Come election time, Sheriff Darryl Daniels may be driving those fancy Dodge Chargers to the biggest roost-a-thon Clay County has ever seen.